NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Essex Farm, Essex NY

Green acres
An assignment turns a writer into a farmer and wife…and now there’s no looking back.

By kristin Kimball

Farm-At-A-Glance

Essex Farm
Essex, NY

Farmers: Kristin and Mark Kimball

First season: 2003

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, dairy, beef, pork, eggs, chicken, dairy, wheat, rye, oats, corn, oilseed sunflowers, maple syrup, cherries, apples, plums, pears.

Location: On Lake Champlain, a little south of Burlington VT.

Marketing strategies: Year-round CSA for 25 families.

February, 2005. I didn't go looking for farming, nor was I looking for a husband. I was there strictly for the interview. My subject was a tall, articulate farmer running a big CSA in central Pennsylvania. The next thing I knew, I had a hoe in my hand, and Farmer Mark and I were talking as we made our way down opposite sides of the same row of broccoli. Somewhere in the smell of turned dirt and sting of worked muscles, something clicked. I never did write up that interview, but within the year I had left my little apartment in Manhattan and promised to marry the farmer. He left the farm in Pennsylvania and found a wonderful landowner willing to lease us 500 acres in the unknown territory of Northeastern New York, with the hope we could build a farm and permanent a home there.

We moved to Essex Farm in November of 2003. The soil was good but the land had not been cropped in 20 years, and everything stood in need of fixing. It was too late to plow that first fall, so we focused on what we could do. We took down some of the dilapidated buildings, made space in the ones that remained, and started acquiring livestock. First came Delia, our sweet-natured milk cow. Then, our team of Belgian geldings, Sam and Silver. Then another milk cow, and six pigs, and a starter beef herd. A hundred chicks under the brooder, and then the third milk cow. By the time we ordered our seeds, we'd pretty much spent our savings, and it was time to acquire some members. We started with seven brave pioneers. (By mid-season, we had 15.) They each own a share of everything we raise and grow. Our goal then, as now, was to provide our members with year-round access to food produced on our farm, in unlimited quantity and with enough variety that they wouldn't need to go to the grocery store at all. That meant building a highly diversified farm right away, which turned out to be an extremely complex proposition.

As snow melted and spring got underway, it dawned on me I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Like most urban people, I was not used to physical work. I had no skills that were of any use. Everything I did—from driving the team, to learning to set the dang Nibex seeder, to making cheese—was new and awkward and needed to be done right away. By June, there was no time to change course. For better or worse, we had set a big living machine in motion, and we had to tend it. Mark and I were both working as hard as we could, and we were still falling behind. What should have been minor bumps in the road—a lame horse, a broken plow—set us way back. We were late going in with seeds and transplants, and weeds crept up on us. This was the simple life? The stress was incredible! That we both made it through the first season here without permanent injury and still in love is a miracle.

At the same time, I felt like I had discovered something no less profound than the secret to happiness. This work was exhausting, but it was deeply satisfying. There was a direct, nourishing connection between our effort and our product. Moreover, most of the work was not like work at all. There's no better place in the world than behind the team's willing haunches, smelling the good smell of their sweat, listening to the hypnotic thunk of the big feet.

And despite the setbacks, thanks largely to Mark's 10 years of experience, the farm produced bountifully. From six tilled acres came more vegetables than our members could eat, and root crops to store for the winter (with enough excess to feed our animals and more). We had the land hayed, and kept enough to get our own beasts through winter. We did not make enough cash to pay ourselves a salary, but we did manage to increase our net worth. In the fall, just as the pumpkins turned orange, we were married in the loft of the horse barn, with that good smell of horse seeping up through the floorboards.

What did I learn in my first season? That insomnia is not among the farmer's afflictions, and sleep can be a thick velvety pleasure that one falls into at the close of a day. That animals are not at all like people with fur. That the green bounty of the earth is firmly locked to the magnificent, age-old, sweaty struggle to reap it. That some farm days end in high-fives and others in tears. One night last spring it was the latter, brought on by utter fatigue and some now-forgotten frustration. Our neighbor Steve, who has farmed for nearly all his eighty years, pulled up in his truck as I was indulging in a good weep. He looked at my streaky face, asked no questions, passed a can of ice-cold beer out the truck window and said, 'Well. That's farming.' Then he drove off, to his own evening chores.